Money Talk: Red Flags

Photo: Jeremy T. Hetzel

Photo: Jeremy T. Hetzel

Just as every job has rewards, every job has risks. Nonprofit jobs are certainly no exception. Figuring out what the risks are can be difficult. Here are 4 places you might find red flags:

Unstable budget. Nonprofits receive funding from a variety of sources: individual donors, foundations, government agencies, and so on. While many organizations have stable, reliable financing, many do not. Funding streams are linked precariously to external factors that have nothing to do with how well a program is doing: personal relationships, the stock market, even Congress. In my opinion, a prospective employer has an ethical obligation to tell you if your job has an expiration date. Ask how your salary will be funded and whether they believe this is a long-term job opportunity.

Vague job descriptions. I probably should not have to say this, but I will anyway: you should not take a job without seeing a job description, especially in a nonprofit where duties and responsibilities can be very fluid. When you receive the job description, read it carefully. Ask if you can take it home to look it over. Does it match the conversations you’ve had with the staff about your job? Think about the title you will have. Do the responsibilities you read in the job description make sense? Do any duties seem outside the scope? All this may sound tedious, but at one organization for which I worked, every time someone left, we would “revise” the job description willy-nilly. “Oh, we need someone to sort the mail. That never gets done on time,” someone would say, and we’d add it to the list. The job would wind up being a catch-all for the duties no one wanted. The poor newbie would have the title “Program Coordinator of Logistics and Operations” as well as about 30 incoherent daily tasks. Now, vague job descriptions aren’t necessarily a bad thing. You may like having a lot of different duties. You may be excited about the variety. But if something looks out of place, don’t be afraid to ask for clarity.

Other duties as assigned. Every nonprofit job description I’ve seen includes some iteration of “…and other duties as assigned.” Seemingly benign, this clause can be a powerful tool for managers to lord over you, especially if you are salaried rather than hourly. Once I worked for a small nonprofit that offered youth programs after school and on Saturdays. Although part-time staff implemented the programming, a full-time staff member needed to be on site when the building was open. When the person responsible for Saturday coverage complained that he needed more time with his family, our boss brought a calendar to staff meeting and divided Saturdays for the next semester among the three of us. He claimed that this was just part of the “other duties as assigned” to which we agreed in our job descriptions. Since we were salaried, we did not receive any additional pay or time off. Granted, extenuating circumstances arise, and nonprofits, like any workplace, are entitled to ask employees to provide temporary solutions to short-term needs. Reasonable requests include chipping in during the annual fundraising event or filling in for a sick colleague. Dividing up Saturday shifts was a permanent solution, not a “chipping in” scenario. Ask your prospective employer what he or she means by “other duties as assigned.” Ask for some examples of what these other duties might be.

High turnover. Employee retention is an issue for nonprofits across the country. High rates of turnover can lead to program instability and dilute organizational history. It is perfectly reasonable to ask questions about the tenure of the staff. For individual employees, job security and satisfaction are linked to those around you. What if the person who hired you quits? How will you get along with his or her replacement? How long have other staff members have been working for the organization? How long did the last person in your position work for the organization? Depending on how comfortable you are, ask why people leave. The answers to these questions can help you learn more about the organization and your job. Are people working there for six months and getting fed up or burned out? Are you being hired by someone who is on the way out the door? Tread lightly with this one, but do seek the information.

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